O.C. food bank volunteers qualify for next phase of COVID-19 vaccinations

Laguna Food Pantry volunteers load groceries into a vehicle on Dec. 14, 2020. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

The Orange County Health Officer shared Tuesday that volunteers at local food banks and pantries, including Laguna Food Pantry, are eligible to be vaccinated for COVID-19 in the next phase of the County’s distribution plan.

Dr. Clayton Chau, county health officer and director of the OC Health Care Agency, said in a prepared statement that food pantry workers will be classified as food industry workers included in Phase 1B. They’ll be joined by teachers and childcare providers.

“The County will reevaluate expanding eligibility to more populations weekly as ICU levels stabilize and more vaccine doses become available,” Chau wrote.

Anne Belyea, executive director of Laguna Food Pantry, said this new-found clarity after more than four months of inquiries is a “game-changer” for her nonprofit and the 120 volunteers who help get free groceries into the hands of Orange County’s neediest families.

“This is the light you’re looking for at the end of the tunnel,” Belyea said. “Hopefully, they’ll get the kinks worked out and distribution will go smoother.”

Belyea said she received her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 4 at the Soka University super point of dispensing site. She has a date and time scheduled to receive her second dose. Even though she’s on track to be fully vaccinated, Belyea still worries every day about her volunteers’ safety as they place boxed groceries into the back seats of cars at the Pantry’s drive-thru.

“It’s one of the things that keep you up at night and that’s why I’ve been working at vaccinations [for pantry volunteers],” she said. “Without a doubt, I feel responsible.”

As early as September, Belyea asked the Health Care Agency for information about whether food bank volunteers would be classified as essential food workers and when they’d be eligible to get vaccination appointments. Answers were scarce or never arrived.

She then tried to get answers from Supervisor Lisa Bartlett and Assemblymember Cottie-Petrie Norris (D-Laguna Beach) but not even these elected representatives could get firm answers from public agencies about food bank workers.

Orange County officials have publicly said they are pleading daily with the California Department of Public Health to increase the region’s supply of COVID-19 vaccine doses.

In December, the Pantry’s volunteers collectively donated 2,320 hours of their time to numerous tasks that include retrieving groceries donated by local markets, sorting food, and recording demographic information from shoppers. A few volunteers are working up to 100 hours per month, Belyea said. They all wear gloves and masks—some wear face shields—to prevent spreading the coronavirus.

It’s still unclear when Orange County food bank volunteers can get their first shot.

Orange County’s vaccination task force recently recommended vaccinating as many seniors as possible over the next two weeks before reevaluating a new timeline for food workers and educators to get in line, Bartlett spokesperson Pauline Colvin said.

When asked whether she endorses Orange County classifying pantry volunteers as food industry workers, Bartlett said, “I’m supportive but we have to follow health protocols from our public health officer due to the limited number of vaccine doses.”

Once the County enters Phase1B, individuals will still need to present documentation of an Othena.com appointment if they are electing to be vaccinated at a County Super POD. Belyea has already signed a letter with the nonprofit’s letterhead that she plans to share with her volunteers. A Health Care Agency spokesperson said this letter would satisfy a requirement for employment verification.

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